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SportsMixed Martial Arts

Chris Weidman and his team relieved to be back in UFC title contention

On Saturday, Oct. 7, 2017, UFC star Chris Weidman gave a pep talk at his alma mater to the Baldwin football team. He talked to the athletes about the virtues of working hard and not giving up.

Listen closely. Beyond the deafening roar of 11,918 people all shouting simultaneously in the common goal of shining adulation of their hometown hero.

There’s an even more powerful sound coming from a much smaller group of people. It is that of great exhalation and the lowering of shoulders as a massive weight, accumulated over the past 791 days, suddenly was lifted off the back of Chris Weidman, his coaches and his immediate family.

“I think there was a sense of relief,” Weidman told Newsday after beating Kelvin Gastelum inside Nassau Coliseum in the main event of UFC Long Island on Saturday night. “I don’t think I held that back at all.”

No, he certainly did not. After losing three straight fights and one UFC middleweight championship in the past two years and two months, any self-doubt about who he is as a fighter floated away as he celebrated with fans around the arena who spent a previous 15 minutes or so chanting “Let’s go, Weidman!”

“I think I elbowed the security guard,” Weidman joked afterward about his adrenaline-fueled revelry with familiar faces in the front row and beyond. “Now I feel bad. I was amped up. I was seeing so many familiar faces walking away. I wanted to show them love for supporting me. I’ve got so much love for this area.”

MMA may look like an individual sport when the fights take place, but there’s a team of people who helped get the fighter to the cage that night. Family, friends, nutritionists, coaches, trainers. They, too, can feel the brunt of negativity and doubt and concern.

“This sport is crazy. It’s not like baseball, where you can have an off day and get to redeem yourself the next day,” trainer Ray Longo said. “You have to go months and listen to all the doubters and the haters. It can take you down.

“Mentally, this is a really big relief. It gives us time to go back to the drawing board, just keep pushing forward.”

Weidman was knocked down by Gastelum in the final seconds of an otherwise dominant first round. He recovered quickly, controlled the second round and the third round en route to the submission victory by arm triangle choke.

“When he’s focused, just like in the Machida fight, he’s not going anywhere,” Longo said. “And you’ve got a big fighter standing in front of you throwing and taking you down and going for submissions and that’s a problem.”

Amid his losing streak, Weidman (14-3) always said his goal was the regain the championship belt from whoever has it when it’s his turn. The reigning UFC middleweight champion is Michael Bisping, and Weidman turned his focus toward him during his in-cage interview right after the fight.

“Lastly, that British bum who is crying who is crying in his freaking house right now,” Weidman said. “I’m back baby! I’m back! What’s up? Stop hiding from the real men. Let’s go, baby! I am the champion and everybody knows it!”

Weidman lost the title to Luke Rockhold in December 2015 and then had to pull out of the June 2016 rematch with an injury. Bisping took his place and knocked out Rockhold to become the champ. Since then, Bisping has made one title defense — against 46-year-old Dan Henderson last October. Bisping was supposed to fight Georges St-Pierre at some point in 2017 but that fight did not materialize.

“Bisping has been running,” Weidman said in his post-fight interview. “He did a great job, he got the belt when I gave him the opportunity to get the belt. Since then, he hasn’t fought anyone that’s a No. 1 contender.”

What happens next and when for the two fighters — beyond the exchanges on social media, of course — remains to be seen. But the Baldwin-raised Weidman was clear about one thing after Saturday night.

“Chris Weidman is back, baby,” Weidman said. “That is safe to say.”

Longo, who has trained Weidman for close to 10 years, agreed.

“I think he showed me some attributes that were missing before that are definitely back,” Longo said. “Now, again, we have to maintain it and build on it. This is going to be a great fight for him to understand what he needs to do to climb up that ladder, rung by rung, but we’re going to get there.”

New York Sports